By JEFF PARROT

South Bend Tribune

It could take Hoosiers years to learn about the circumstances leading to the deaths or near deaths of children from abuse or neglect under a bill moving through the Indiana General Assembly.

Since the early 2000s, the Indiana Department of Child Services has been required by Indiana statute to release, upon request, any records related to the case histories of such children. The idea behind the law was that other abused and neglected children stand a better chance of surviving and leading happy, productive lives if the public knows about problems in the child welfare system.

The law exempts from public disclosure information related to ongoing police investigations, partly so news media don’t interview witnesses before police can, but the new bill, authored by Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, would expand that exemption to also include cases in which criminal prosecutions are pending.

“Obviously that makes the information unavailable for, it could be years, if you’re talking about a case that goes through the trial court, then is appealed up to the appellate court or even the Supreme Court,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

Key said he was trying to contact Messmer regarding the bill. The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee unanimously approved an amendment containing the change Tuesday, sending it on to full Senate next for second reading.

The change is just one part of Senate Bill 551, a sweeping measure addressing victims of criminal acts, which has been assigned to the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee. At a committee meeting last week, David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, testified in support of the public access restriction, pointing to a Fort Wayne case as an example of why it’s needed.

Powell said a juvenile judge incorrectly released to the Journal Gazette an unredacted coroner’s report, containing autopsy photos, on the beating death of 2-year-old Malakai Garrett in November 2017. Such releases make it more difficult to prosecute cases because the court must find jurors without prior knowledge of the case to ensure a fair trial, Powell said.

In February 2012, The Tribune published “For the Love of Children,” a series of stories on, among other cases, the days and months leading up to the November 2011 torture death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis at the hands of his father, 36-year-old Terry Sturgis.

Terry Sturgis was convicted of 14 counts of murder, battery, neglect and criminal confinement, and sentenced to 140 years in prison. It wasn’t until June 2013, 16 months after the series’ publication, that the Indiana Court of Appeals denied his appeal of the convictions.

The following General Assembly session, lawmakers passed bills requiring DCS to save unsubstantiated report records and quickly follow up on calls, and DCS implemented policy changes to send unsubstantiated reports to local DCS offices for review to check the decisions of the centralized hotline, and better respond to and communicate with police, prosecutors and mandatory reporters.